Can biotechnology help feed the world?

Posted: 14 September 2000

Author: Henrylito D. Tacio

Author Info: Henrylito D. Tacio is an awarding-winning environmental journalist based in Manila, and People & the Planet correspondent in The Philippines.

Much has been heard in Europe about the dangers of the genetic engineering of food crops. For an Asian view, we publish this article by Henrylito Tacio, an award-winning journalist based in the Philippines.

Between now and 2020, the world's population is likely to increase by about 40 per cent to 8 billion. In Asia, the world's largest continent, the number of people will rise by 1.5 billion.Population growth, rapid urbanization - in developing countries like the Philippines, urban populations will increase much more rapidly than rural ones - income increases and dietary changes will all result in an increasing demand for food.harvest© Mark Edwards/Still PicturesOne estimate projects that cereal demand will grow by about 80 per cent in developing countries and by 55 per cent in the world as a whole. Demand for meat will surge by a staggering 160 per cent in developing countries, though from a very low level, and 75 per cent worldwide.

How will these demands be met? Given that in most places significantly expanding the cultivated area would not be economically or environmentally sound, it will have to be done by using the land already under cultivation more efficiently and by providing food where it is most needed - in developing countries. The central challenges will be to develop food in an environmentally sustainable manner and to increase the poorer countries' capacity to produce it, thereby generating income and employment through agricultural growth, rather than simply augmenting their food supplies.

But how? Some experts believe it could be done through biotechnology. It encompasses an array of tools and applications that allow scientists to manipulate the genetic materials of plants, microbes, and animals. These methods provide ways to modify the characteristics that are passed from one generation to the next.

"Biotechnology represents one of the most exciting advances in the biological sciences in this century," declares Dr. Reuben Olembo, of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). "It will become a driving economic force in the next one, helping to provide practical solutions to global problems of food supply, health care, energy, waste treatment, and industrial regeneration."

Former World Bank Vice-President Ismail Serageldin sees biotechnology playing a crucial part of agriculture in the 21st century. "All possible tools that can help promote sustainable agriculture for food security must be marshalled, and biotechnology, safely developed, could be a tremendous help."

Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug agrees: "Global food insecurity will not disappear without effective application of new technology," he explains. "To ignore this reality will make future solutions to food security all the more difficult to achieve."

Food security, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) means "ensuring all people at all times have access to the food they need for a healthy, active life." It comes about when food is available throughout the year at prices affordable to everyone.

Double helix

Biotechnology has existed since ancient times. Spirulina, one of the oldest forms of life on earth, is believed to be what the ancient Israelites of the Old Testament called "manna from heaven."

The modern era of biotechnology, however, had its origin in 1953 when American biochemist James Watson and British biophysicist Francis Crick presented their "double helix" molecular model of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). Both received a Nobel Prize for their collaborative work in 1962.

DNA, the genetic material of all cellular organisms and most viruses, carries the information needed to direct so-called "protein synthesis" and "replication." Protein synthesis is the production of the proteins needed by the cell or virus for its activities and development. Replication is the process by which DNA copies itself for each descendant cell or virus, passing on the information needed for protein synthesis.

In the 1960s, Swiss microbiologist Werner Arber discovered special enzymes, called restriction enzymes, in bacteria. These enzymes cut the DNA strands of any organism at precise points.

In 1973, geneticist Stanley Cohen and biochemist Herbert Boyer - both Americans - removed a specific gene (a piece of the genetic material that determines the inheritance of a particular characteristics, or group of characteristics) from one bacterium and inserted it into another using restriction enzymes.

This event marked the beginning of recombinant DNA technology, commonly known as genetic engineering. Also known as genetic modification or bioengineering, it is the alteration of an organism's genetic, or hereditary, material to eliminate undesirable characteristics or to produce desirable new ones.

In its wider sense, biotechnology also includes biological processes used in the food industry. Some of these have been used for centuries, like yeasts to help bread rise and convert sugar into alcohol in brewing, and bacteria to digest sugars and add flavour in cheese making. But these techniques all use naturally-occurring organisms. Genetic engineering creates viruses, bacteria, yeasts, plants and animals which have never occurred in nature.

"Today, our growing ability to directly alter an organism's genetic makeup is having a major impact worldwide on agriculture and animal husbandry," maintains Denise K. Casey, a science writer and educator with the US Department of Energy's Human Genome Management Information System at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "A number of ongoing projects aim to decipher and manipulate the genomes of such economically important organisms as rice, corn, wheat, soy, cotton, sheep, goats, cows, pigs, and fish."wheatHigh yielding wheat in India© Mark Edwards/Still PicturesDr Channapatna Prakash, who came to the Philippines to enlighten Filipinos about the benefits of biotechnology, claimed that biotchnology "can be a tool for Philippine agriculture to tackle critical problems such as improving the safety and quality of its food and enhancing the environment by lowering the use of agricultural chemicals."

Philippine Science Secretary, Filemon Uriarte Jr, believes biotechnology has a bright future in his country. "Modern techniques in biotechnology have vastly increased the speed at which nature could be manipulated to serve society's needs," he explains. "Biotechnology, in conjunction with other emerging technologies, will undoubtedly be a major source of innovation and growth in coming decades." Unfortunately, the country is still 20 years behind in genetic engineering.

Commercial application

As early as 1982, the first commercial application of biotechnology was used to develop human insulin for diabetes treatment. In 1990, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved chymosin - the first product of recombinant DNA technique - for food use. By 2000, more than 50 per cent of all cheeses produced around the world make use of chymosin.

In 1994, food manufacturer Calgene obtained the first approval to commercialize a genetically modified food product in the United States when it marketed its Flavr Savr delayed-ripening tomato. As much as 70 per cent of the foods on US grocery store shelves may contain ingredients derived from genetically-modified (GM) corn, soybeans, potatoes and other crops, in everything from cereal to salad dressing to potato chips. Worldwide, a total of 70 genetically modified crops have been released commercially since 1992, according to the Genetic Modification Advisory Committee of Singapore.

"Foods produced using genetic modification are as safe as foods produced using conventional breeding techniques," assures FDA. "Genetically modified foods are as safe as other foods available on the market."

Kathy Knuth, spokewoman for the Kraft food unit of Philip Morris, believes that Americans have a basic trust in scientific progress. "Unless there is a major (food safety) disaster, I believe the tide (against GM foods) will swing back toward acceptance."

Von Hernandez, regional campaigns director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, reports that in Europe, marketing approval has been granted to genetically-modified (GM) tobacco, soybeans, oilseed rape, corn and chicory. GM soybean, corn and oilseed rape are being exported from the United States to be used widely in processed foods and animal feeds.

In Europe, GM soya can be found in bread, biscuits, baby milk, pasta, pizza, instant meals, meat products, flours, sweets, ice cream, crisps, chocolate, soy sauce, veggie-burgers, tofu, soya milk and pet foods.

A fifteen-fold increase in hectarage devoted to GM crops was noted between 1996 and 1998. Total global area devoted to GM crops in 1998 stood at 27.8 million hectares, up from 11 million hectares in 1997. GM crops are currently planted in nine countries, namely: the United States, Argentina, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Spain, France, China, and South Africa. Non-commercial trials of GM crops are taking place in many countries throughout the world, including the Philippines.

"The high adoption rates for GM crops reflect the growing satisfaction with products that offer significant multiple benefits," says Dr Clive James, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.

The proponents of biotechnology claim that the system could transform agriculture, giving the world the ability to "design" crop plants to produce increased yields - even in difficult conditions - with far less reliance on chemical inputs. Their vision is of GM crops as "a clean and sustainable solution" to the problem of food security for the world's growing population in the 21st century. Studies have shown that GM crops can better resist destructive pests and diseases, reducing pesticide and herbicide applications in the field and producing enhanced yields for farmers.

Monsanto, one of the world's largest GM seed companies, foresees three waves of beneficial products: "The first consists of genetically modified crops which are resistant to insects and disease, or tolerant of herbicides. These will allow farmers to meet the growing demand for food from a population set to double in size over the next 50 years. The second wave will see genetically induced 'quality traits' in food, such as high-fiber corn, or high-starch potatoes, some of which will help doctors to fight disease. And in the third wave, plants will be used as environmentally friendly 'factories' to produce substances for human consumption."

David Wheat, President of the Bowditch Group, a Boston-based consultancy firm, estimated that the market value of GM crops was US$250 million in 1997. He expects that this will grow rapidly to US$5 billion by 2005.

Risks and dangers

All is not rosy, however. While "there is much euphoria about developments in biotechnology and about the benefits they promise to bring to society, there are also risks and dangers associated with this technology," warns UNEP's Olembo. "But there are also risks and dangers associated with this technology."

"I believe that this kind of genetic modification takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone," deplored Prince Charles in 1998.

Dr. Peter Wills, a theoretical biologist at Auckland University, agrees: "By transferring genes across species barriers which have existed for eons, we risk breaching natural thresholds against unexpected biological processes."

Some critics believe that genetic engineers will not be able to deliver on their promises because the genetic structure of plants, for instance, is so complicated that scientists cannot yet fully understand and modify it. For example, these critics doubt whether it will be possible to modify crops reliably for salt tolerance. Salt metabolism is dependent on an interaction between several genes. The more genes involved in a GM plant, the more unpredictable the results. Sometimes the genes simply do not work, or they may produce unexpected results.

Many environmentalists also have doubts about the benefits of genetically engineered herbidice resistance. Will it reduce the use of chemicals, as the industry claims, in the longer term? An analysis by the Pesticides Trust on behalf of the environmental campaigning organization Greenpeace argues that the introduction of herbicide-resistant varieties will alter the pattern of herbicide use but will not significantly change the overall amounts used.

In some instances, planting a GM herbicide-resistant crop may even lead to over-reliance on a single herbicide. Ricarda Steinbrecher, of the Women's Environmental Network, told The Ecologis, "if spraying occurs regularly, there is every reason to believe that weeds in or near fields of genetically engineered crops would develop resistance to the herbicide - as weeds become resistant, higher and higher doses of herbicide would need to be used, leaving larger and larger amounts of chemical residue on the crops."

Another area of concern is the likely increased loss of biological diversity as a result of the introduction of GM crops. Monoculture of conventionally bred crops has already demonstrated this danger. For instance, the US maize crop was devastated by a fungal disease called Corn Blight in the 1970s, and in 1975 Indonesian farmers lost half a million acres of rice to damage caused by the rice hopper insect.

"The promotion of GM crops is likely to increase the tendency of monocropping with a limited range of genetically uniform commercial varieties," says the London-based Panos Institute. "If the local varieties around the world are lost as a result of the spread of commercial varieties, the range of genes available to feed the world is drastically reduced."

In industrialised countries critics slammed politicians and scientists supporting GM crops. "Any politician or scientist who tells you GM products are safe is either very stupid or lying," said David Suzuki in an article which appeared in Canadian Media Star. In a statement released to media, Greenpeace decried: "It's now possible to do stuff that only writers could imagine before and build up completely new life forms. The argument that we need genetically-modified food to feed the world is complete bull."

As a result of these apprehensions, some food companies are no longer including GM ingredients in their finished products. Others play it safe like the case of Gerber Products Co, the biggest US baby food maker. It says, "even though we felt that science shows genetically enhanced ingredients are safe, we decided it would be best for our consumers, the parents, to protect them from having concerns, and to eliminate us from the debate."

© ISF/Environmental ImagesAlthough health risks to human of eating "Frankenfood," - as the British press called GM crops in "honour" of Frankenstein the character created by English author Mary Shelley - is yet unknown, there are signs it could cause allergies, resistance to certain medicines and possible even affect internal organs.

Dr. Romeo Quijano, of the Department of Pharmacology at the University of the Philippines College of Medicine, said GM foods are hazardous commodities because they carried new proteins that may cause allergy and other reactions like asthma.

In Europe, researchers at the York Nutritional Laboratory reported that health complaints caused by soya - the ingredient most associated with GM foods - have increased from 10 to 15 in 100 patients over the past year.

"It is the first time in 17 years of testing that soya has crept into the laboratory's top 10 foods to cause an allergic reaction to consumers," reports Elenita Dano, executive director of the Southeast Asia Regional Institute for Community Education (SEARICE).

Dr. Quijano said recent scientific data indicate "the emergence of new diseases, the rapid evolution of virulence and the widespread occurrence of drug and antibiotic resistance are associated with the rise of genetic engineering."

Others believe biotechnology won't feed the world. After all, the two main GM crops commercially grown in the United States - soybeans and corn - are used to feed livestock, not people. "This may be good for GM corn companies and their partners in the grain trade, but it will do little to relieve world hunger," says the publication, Genetic Engineering and World Hunger. "Indeed, livestock production in many developing countries has often been at the direct expense of poorer people's diets."

Some critics think biotechnology promotes unsustainable agriculture. The same publication explained: "Genetically engineered crops will stimulate the evolution of 'superweeds' and 'superbugs,' which will necessitate higher doses of chemicals and make food supplies more vulnerable to pest damage. In addition, the adoption of GM crops is likely to reduce genetic diversity, resulting in fewer and fewer types of food crops. The narrowing of the genetic base of food adds to the likelihood of pest and disease epidemics."

To be or not to be

The question remains: Should biotechnology be promoted or not? In Southeast Asia, only Singapore has come out strongly in favor of biotechnology, viewing it as a promising new industry. "Americans have been eating GM foods for almost a decade with no reported problems," says Julie Howden, executive director of the Asian Food Information Centre. "There is no evidence that any of these products are implicated in human health problems."

"If it is safe for the Americans, it is safe for us," declares Lee Sing Kong, a member of Singapore Government's Genetic Modification Advisory Committee, brushing aside growing debate in the united states.

Despite this, consumer movements in India, Japan, New Zealand, Thailand and the Philippines are demanding controls on use of GM crops. In other parts of the region - particularly Malaysia and Indonesia - genetic engineering has explosive ramifications. "If people were aware that animal genes might be used in plants, maybe from cows or pigs, there would be a lot of religious objections from Hindus and Muslims," said Haji Muhammad Jahi Abdul Majid, a professor of biotechnology at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.

At a time of rapid advances in modern science and technology, the persistence of hunger and extreme poverty is indefensible. And one possible solution to the problem is, as stated earlier, biotechnology. One sage puts it in perspective: "A man who has enough food has several problems. A man without food has only one problem."

Words of wisdom, these.